Michael Magaraci, Research Scientist at Protein Evolution and alumnus of Penn Bioengineering, featured in CT Insider for the New Haven, CT startup’s quest to replace the global recycling system. The company, founded in 2021, is working on methods to eventually recycle polyester fabrics, rugs, and other materials that end up in landfills. Magaraci, who serves as director of platform engineering, earned a bachelor’s degree in Bioengineering and Economics in the Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology from Penn Engineering and the Wharton School of Business in 2013. He stayed with Penn Bioengineering for his doctoral research, completed in 2021. During his time at Penn, he worked as a Teaching Assistant and Laboratory Technician, advised Penn iGEM Teams, and served with Engineers Without Borders.
Joshua C. Doloff, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Materials Science & Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, featured in The Jewish News Syndicate for his work on “Hope,” a new technology which offers pain- and injection-free treatment to people with Type 1 or “juvenile” diabetes. Doloff is an alumnus of Penn Bioengineering, Class of 2004:
“Doloff received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and his graduate degrees from Boston University. In addition to his post in Johns Hopkins’ Department of Biomedical Engineering, he is a member of the Translational Tissue Engineering Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His lab is interested in systems biology with an emphasis on engineering improved therapies in the fields of cancer, autoimmunity, transplantation medicine, including Type 1 diabetes and ophthalmology.”
The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the largest cancer research organization in the country and based in Philadelphia, will bestow its 2023 Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research to Carl June, Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Penn Medicine. June is also Director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies, Director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. He is recognized for his groundbreaking work in developing the first gene-editing cell therapy for cancer and for his pioneering work with CAR T cell therapy.
People with epilepsy are often prescribed anti-seizure medications, and, while they are effective for many, about 30% of patients still continue to experience seizures. Litt sought new ways to offer patients better treatment options by investigating a class of devices that electronically stimulate cells in the brain to modulate activity known as neurostimulation devices.
Litt’s research on implantable neurostimulation devices has led to significant breakthroughs in the technology and has broadened scientists’ understanding of the brain. This work started not long after he came to Penn in 2002 with licensing algorithms to help drive a groundbreaking device by NeuroPace, the first closed-loop, responsive neurostimulator to treat epilepsy.
Building on this work, Litt noted in 2011 how the implantable neurostimulation devices being used at the time had rigid wires that didn’t conform to the brain’s surface, and he received support from CURE Epilepsy to accelerate the development of newer, flexible wires to monitor and stimulate the brain.
“CURE is one of the epilepsy community’s most influential funding organizations,” Litt says. “Their support for my lab has been incredibly helpful in enabling the cutting-edge research that we hope will change epilepsy care for our patients.”
They are among the 413 students named 2023 Goldwater Scholars from more than 5,000 students nominated by 427 academic institutions in the United States, according to the Barry Goldwater Scholarship & Excellence in Education Foundation. Each scholarship provides as much as $7,500 each year for as many as two years of undergraduate study.
Penn has produced 59 Goldwater Scholars since Congress established the scholarship in 1986 to honor U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater.
Angela Song, from Princeton Junction, New Jersey, is a third-year majoring in bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. She is interested in engineering molecular therapeutics for disease. She works in Douglas C. Wallace’s lab in the Center for Mitochondrial and Epigenomic Medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, focusing on designing engineered proteins with mitochondrial applications. At Penn, Song is the vice president of design for UnEarthed, a student-published educational magazine for West Philadelphia elementary school children, and president of the Penn American Red Cross Club. After graduating, Song plans to continue pursuing research through a Ph.D. in bioengineering.
Read the full list of Penn 2023 Goldwater Scholars in Penn Today.
Read about previous Penn Bioengineering Goldwater Scholars here.
Up to 50 percent of cancer-signaling proteins once believed to be immune to drug treatments due to a lack of targetable protein regions may actually be treatable, according to a new study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The findings, published this month in Nature Communications, suggest there may be new opportunities to treat cancer with new or existing drugs.
Researchers, clinicians, and pharmacologists looking to identify new ways to treat medical conditions—from cancer to autoimmune diseases—often focus on protein pockets, areas within protein structures to which certain proteins or molecules can bind. While some pockets are easily identifiable within a protein structure, others are not. Those hidden pockets, referred to as cryptic pockets, can provide new opportunities for drugs to bind to. The more pockets scientists and clinicians have to target with drugs, the more opportunities they have to control disease.
The research team identified new pockets using a Penn-designed neural network, called PocketMiner, which is artificial intelligence that predicts where cryptic pockets are likely to form from a single protein structure and learns from itself. Using PocketMiner—which was trained on simulations run on the world’s largest super computer—researchers simulated single protein structures and successfully predicted the locations of cryptic pockets in 35 cancer-related protein structures in thousands of areas of the body. These once-hidden targets, now identified, open up new approaches for potentially treating existing cancer.
What’s more, while successfully predicting the cryptic pockets, the method scientists used in this study was much faster than previous simulation or machine-learning methods. The network allows researchers to nearly instantaneously decide if a protein is likely to have cryptic pockets before investing in more expensive simulations or experiments to pursue a predicted pocket further.
“More than half of human proteins are considered undruggable due to an apparent lack of binding proteins in the snapshots we have,” said Gregory R. Bowman, PhD, a professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics and Bioengineering at Penn and the lead author of the study. “This PocketMiner research and other research like it not only predict druggable pockets in critical protein structures related to cancer but suggest most human proteins likely have druggable pockets, too. It’s a finding that offers hope to those with currently untreatable diseases.”
A new Penn Medicine preclinical study demonstrates a simultaneous ‘knockout’ of two inflammatory regulators boosts T cell expansion to attack solid tumors.
by Meagan Raeke
A new approach that delivers a “one-two punch” to help T cells attack solid tumors is the focus of a preclinical study by researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine. The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that targeting two regulators that control gene functions related to inflammation led to at least 10 times greater T cell expansion in models, resulting in increased anti-tumor immune activity and durability.
“We want to unlock CAR T cell therapy for patients with solid tumors, which include the most commonly diagnosed cancer types,” says June, the new study’s senior author. “Our study shows that immune inflammatory regulator targeting is worth additional investigation to enhance T cell potency.”
One of the challenges for CAR T cell therapy in solid tumors is a phenomenon known as T cell exhaustion, where the persistent antigen exposure from the solid mass of tumor cells wears out the T cells to the point that they aren’t able to mount an anti-tumor response. Engineering already exhausted T cells from patients for CAR T cell therapy results in a less effective product because the T cells don’t multiply enough or remember their task as well.
Previous observational studies hinted at the inflammatory regulator Regnase-1 as a potential target to indirectly overcome the effects of T cell exhaustion because it can cause hyperinflammation when disrupted in T cells—reviving them to produce an anti-tumor response. The research team, including lead author David Mai, a bioengineering graduate student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and co-corresponding author Neil Sheppard, head of the CCI T Cell Engineering Lab, hypothesized that targeting the related, but independent Roquin-1 regulator at the same time could boost responses further.
“Each of these two regulatory genes has been implicated in restricting T cell inflammatory responses, but we found that disrupting them together produced much greater anti-cancer effects than disrupting them individually,” Mai says. “By building on previous research, we are starting to get closer to strategies that seem to be promising in the solid tumor context.”
Dahin Song, a third year undergraduate student in Bioengineering, penned a guest blog post for Penn Career Services as part of their ongoing series of posts by recipients of the 2022 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. In this post, Song talks about her opportunity to conduct research in the SMART Lab of Daeyeon Lee, Professor and Evan C. Thompson Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. During her summer research, Song worked on increasing the stability of the monolayer in microbubbles, gas particles which have been put to therapeutic use. She writes:
“My project was on increasing the stability of the monolayer using cholesterol; theoretically, this would decrease the permeability while maintaining the fluidity of the monolayer. Being given my own project at the get-go was initially intimidating; initial learning curve was overwhelming – along with new wet lab techniques and protocols, I learned a whole new topic well enough to ask meaningful questions. But in retrospect, throwing myself headlong into a project was the best method to immerse me in the research environment, especially as a first-time researcher. I learned how to read papers efficiently, troubleshoot research problems, navigate in a laboratory environment, and be comfortable with working independently but more importantly, with others.”
In many instances, the physical manifestation of cancers and the ways they are subsequently diagnosed is via a tumor, tissue masses of mutated cells and structures that grow excessively. One of the major mysteries in understanding what goes awry in cancers relates to the environments within which these structures grow, commonly known as the tumor microenvironment.
These microenvironments play a role in facilitating tumor survival, growth, and spread. Tumors can help generate their own infrastructure in the form of vasculature, immune cells, signaling molecules, and extracellular matrices (ECMs), three-dimensional networks of collagen-rich support scaffolding for a cell. ECMs also help regulate cellular communications, and in the tumor microenvironment ECMs can be a key promoter of tumor growth by providing structural support for cancerous cells and in modulating signaling pathways that promote growth.
Now, new research led by the School of Arts & Science’sWei Guo and published in the journal Nature Cell Biology has bridged the complex structural interactions within the tumor microenvironment to the signals that trigger tumor growth. The researchers studied cancerous liver cells grown on ECMs of varying stiffness and discovered that the stiffening associated with tumor growth can initiate a cascade that increases the production of small lipid-encapsulated vesicles known as exosomes.
“By recording the number of packages sent, the addresses on these packages, their contents, and most importantly, how they’re regulated and generated, we can better understand the relationship between a patient’s tumor microenvironment and their unique molecular signaling signatures, hinting at more robust personalized cancer therapies,” Radhakrishnan says.
While studying exosomes in relation to tumor growth and metastasis has been well-documented in recent years, researchers have mostly focused on cataloging their characteristics rather than investigating the many processes that govern the creation and shuttling of exosomes between cells. As members of Penn’s Physical Sciences Oncology Center (PSOC), Guo and Radhakrishnan have long collaborated on projects concerning tissue stiffness. For this paper, they sought to elucidate how stiffening promotes exosome trafficking in cancerous intracellular signaling.
“Our lab previously found that high stiffness promotes the secretion of exosomes,” says Di-Ao Liu, co-first author of the paper and a graduate student in the Guo Lab. “Now, we were able to model the stiffening processes through experiments and identify molecular pathways and protein networks that cause this, which better links ECM stiffening to cancerous signaling.”
New research on reproductive health demonstrates the first successful delivery of mRNA to placental cells to treat pre-eclampsia at its root.
Pre-eclampsia is a leading cause of stillbirths and prematurity worldwide, occurring in 3 – 8 % of pregnancies. A disorder characterized by high maternal blood pressure, it results from insufficient vasodilation in the placenta, restricting blood flow from the mother to the fetus.
Currently, a health-care plan for someone with pre-eclampsia involves diet and movement changes, frequent monitoring, blood pressure management, and sometimes early delivery of the baby. These standards of care address symptoms of the condition, not the root cause, and further perpetuate health inequity.
Now, Penn engineers are addressing this longstanding gap in reproductive health care with targeted RNA therapy.
The COVID vaccines demonstrated how lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) efficiently deliver mRNA to target cells. The success of LNPs is opening doors for a variety of RNA therapies aiming to treat the root causes of illness and disease. However, drug development and health care have consistently neglected a portion of the population in need of targeted care the most – pregnant people and their babies.
In one of the first studies of its kind, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society,Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, and Kelsey Swingle, Ph.D. student in the Mitchell Lab and lead author, describe their development of an LNP with the ability to target and deliver mRNA to trophoblasts, endothelial cells, and immune cells in the placenta.
Once these cells receive the mRNA, they create vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a protein that helps expand the blood vessels in the placenta to reduce the mother’s blood pressure and restore adequate circulation to the fetus. The researchers’ successful trials in mice may lead to promising treatments for pre-eclampsia in humans.